BFI Flare film review: Sweetheart
Nell Barlow’s Performance8
Katherine McLaughlin | On 20, Mar 2021
Director: Marley Morrison
Cast: Nell Barlow, Jo Hartley, Ella-Rae Smith
Watch Sweetheart online in the UK: BFI Flare
Summer romances can be a blissful and exhilarating experience, but also a wild and confusing time. As seen in classic coming-of-age film Dirty Dancing, vacationing with family can provide a great setting to sneak away for your first kiss or indeed a steamy mambo. For the main character in writer-director Marley Morrison’s amusing and uplifting feature debut, a coastal Dorset caravan park provides the backdrop for awkward 17-year-old AJ (an impressive Nell Barlow) to finally take the plunge and kiss a girl. The British seaside is a far cry away from the luxury of the Catskills and Morrison’s perspective on the UK holiday camp getaway is wonderfully observed.
Already proudly out to her family and edging closer to adulthood, AJ is a teen character with stubborn opinions and a vulnerability that she refuses to share with her well-meaning mum, Tina (Jo Hartley), until things reach boiling point. She’s also sharing cramped quarters with her older, pregnant sister, Lucy (Sophia Di Martino), Lucy’s partner, Steve (Samuel Anderson), and young daughter, Dayna (Tabitha Byron). Desperate for some teenage kicks, AJ embarks on a flirtation with one of the camp’s lifeguards, Isla (Ella-Rae Smith), leading to drunken shenanigans and family misunderstandings.
Decked out in a bucket hat, baggy t-shirts and rose-tinted sunglasses – the indie music scene look made famous by Liam Gallagher and now considered retro cool – AJ hides away her body, not quite at ease with her appearance. Although the film is set in the modern day, AJ’s very specific 90s garb and the location exude a nostalgia for that period of time, bringing to mind the energy, comedy and drama of TV show My Mad Fat Diary. Merging 90s fashion with progressive attitudes speaks to how things have changed since that era, while also indicating what’s behind certain struggles between mother and daughter.
In the lead role, newcomer Barlow fully inhabits the character of AJ; whether she’s mischievously downing shots, fuming at her mum, or shyly reaching in for a kiss, her performance is entirely believable. Morrison captures the magic and potential of endless summer days spent wandering beaches, imbuing them with sizzling possibility and accompanying them with enticing music by Toydrum. The combination of Barlow’s terrific central performance and a screenplay packed with wit and sensitivity makes this an incredibly charming coming-of-age comedy. Sweetheart may stick too close to formula but it certainly marks Morrison out as a filmmaker to watch.
Sweetheart is available to stream at BFI Flare until Sunday 28th March. Book tickets here